Eastertide 2017: Notes Toward a Wider Theological Insight
If you are a non-believer, are you also a atheist? All atheists are non-believers; but are all non-believers atheists?
The term is a slippery one. In a theistic culture, where believing in a god is considered de rigeur, to openly not believe can get you branded as an atheist. In modern usage, an atheist is a person who denounces others who believe in gods, and argues against belief and the people who hold them (although usually those arguments come up in a Western culture context, so the god referred to is the God of Abraham, who is also the God of Mohammed. Seldom do Western atheists inveigh against Hinduism and its pantheon of gods, or, for different reasons, against Judaism.) An atheist is usually associated with someone harshly critical of religion, like the late Madalyn Murray O'Hair or Christopher Hitchens, or the still alive but largely silent Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris. They are the contemporary models for an atheist and a nonbeliever. But doesn't that mean there are many non-believers indifferent to the question of whether the God of Abraham is real, or religion is reliable or detrimental? All atheists are non-believers; but are all non-believers atheists?
I ask this question because of this study, purporting to show there are more atheists now in America than there ever have been; or, perhaps more accurately stated, there are more than allow themselves to admit to strangers they are atheists. But are atheists merely people who don't believe in God? Is that the threshold?
Of course, that's a cultural threshold. Buddhists, as best I understand, don't believe in gods. Are all Buddhists atheists? What about Hindus, who recognize many gods? Are non-Christians atheists? Or non-Muslims? Some members of both group think so; which definition is correct?
There’s something else to consider here: Our experience with religion can’t really be boiled down to one question — “Do you believe in God?”
Many of us have a complicated relationship with religion. There are plenty of people celebrating Easter and Passover this week not because they have devout faith, but because it’s a cultural tradition they cherish and identify with.If you asked me if I believed in God, I might well say "No," just because I reject the premise of the question and the assumptions about the nature of "belief." If you ask me if I have faith in God, I would say "Yes," and then you would probably be confused and think I was playing games or I was a closet atheist who wouldn't come out of the closet, or a "believer" who wanted to hide my "belief." And that's just one way of stating the problem: people do have complex and contradictory feelings, as well as thoughts, about religion. And some of them only seem "complex" and "contradictory" because we have rather loose and vague ideas about what "faith" and "belief" mean, even though they are common enough English words. This seems like an exercise in sophistry; but this is where the historic Christian creeds came from.
Pew regularly finds data that supports this multifaceted view. When people in their surveys say, “I believe in God,” Pew will often ask a follow-up question: “How certain are you?” And they find that not everyone is so sure.
About a quarter of the US population say they believe in God but are less than absolutely certain of it, Smith says.
The lesson: Belief in God doesn’t exist as a binary. Not everyone is certain about what they feel; many people have shades of gray. “There are gradations of belief,” Smith says. “It’s not that it’s wrong to ask ‘yes or no,’ but it’s not the whole story.”
And Gervais admits: His measure doesn’t capture the complex and contradictory feelings many people have about religion.
If you recite a creed in a profession of faith, the words of the creed say what you believe. Reciting the creed already presumes a "belief in God," but when the creed says "I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth," it's not the same thing as saying "I believe in God." At least not to people who believe in God, but don't accept the words of the creed as their own. The modern question "Do you believe in God" is not necessarily answered by the first words of the creed. If I answer the question with those words, I assume you understand what I mean by "Creator of heaven and earth." But what I understand and what you understand are probably very different things, especially if you think my belief depends upon an anthropomorphic deity fashioning the earth (or the cosmos, if we start with the first story in Genesis) with something like "hands" and breathing divine breath directly into nostrils of a human shaped from clay, then later removing a rib from that human to fashion the first woman; and I don't mean anything like that at all. What I mean might well get me branded an atheist by some Christians; and then where are we?
Complex and contradictory ideas and feelings about matters religious? Have you ever been to a seminary? At least there you wouldn't get arguments like the Dawkins Foundation posted a few years back concerning the liturgical season (or the holiday just past):
Last year, the Dawkins Foundation posted an Internet meme claiming that Easter is named after the Babylonian goddess Ishtar, which was dragged out again by contrarians who reposted it to remind everyone what Easter is “really” about. This secret history of Easter is a bit like the childhood myth that consuming Pop Rocks and Coke at the same time causes your stomach to explode: It doesn’t matter if it’s true, it’s fun to tell people because it makes you feel smart. These smug proclamations are not only irritating, they’re a disturbing index of our level of discourse about religion. Surrounding the Easter/Ishtar conspiracy theory is a toxic brew of anti-intellectualism, heresiological claims masquerading as historical ones, and simple sadism and incivility facilitated by new media.
"Last year," in that quote, would be 2015. There are serious problems with the information in the Dawkins Foundation post, but the most important one is this: "Easter" is an English word. It isn't the word used in almost any other language where Easter is observed. It's a word the Venerable Bede attributed to an otherwise unknown German goddess, claiming it was taken from a celebration of that goddess at the same time of year, and so the word "Easter" found its way into English (Bede relates this in the context of the ecclesiastical history of the English speaking people, so the point deserves emphasis). But no scholar has ever been able to find any evidence of Bede's Germanic goddess.
"Easter" is an English word. There is no direct connection between English history and Babylonian history that would connect Ishtar to Easter. The claim that there is such a direct connection is absolute nonsense, a product of the absence of both reasoning and knowledge.
Now, are atheists the only people who are rational and knowledgeable because they reject any belief in any god? Or are they simply Westerners who argue about people who profess Christianity or Islam (it's not done to question the religious bona fides of the other people of the Book, the Jews)?
The study itself returns me to my oft-cited-to-the-point-of-cliche statistic from early in the 20th century, when only 40% of Americans admitted to a stranger that they attended church regularly. Maybe they didn't admit to being atheists, but then atheism was not yet connected to Aldous Huxley and Bertrand Russell, much less Madalyn Murray O'Hair or Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris or Christopher Hitchens. Except for the last, of those contemporary three, whatever happened to them? Evangelists for atheism, they seem to have fallen silent. They were very public atheists, left their stamp on atheism; but did they define atheism?
All atheists are non-believers; but are all non-believers atheists? If we are going to declare a rise in the percentage of the population that doesn't declare any belief, we not only have to define our terms, we have to set a baseline. Are we becoming more atheistic? Or simply less interested in categories of religious belief? The latter seems truer about American culture: the fundamental Protestantism that led to the creation of churches like the Congregational Methodists. I saw a sign for such a church in deep East Texas recently, far back in the woods away from civilization. I have no idea who they are, but suspect they didn't like the merger of the Methodists with the United Brethren, yielding the United Methodists. Or maybe they predate that merger. My father, who grew up a Methodist, used to say they were anything but "United." There are Congregational congregations that never joined the UCC in its merger in 1957. Fractioning and splitting and going your own way in matters religious is as American as violence and cherry pie. Whenever we act like religious belief in America was once placid and unitary and as solid as a slab, we distort our history and imagine ourselves more special and unique than we really are. Mark Twain would walk among us and wonder where the freethinkers went. We take recent history as the history of the country; we are as anachronistic as buggy whip makers, yet we keep cranking out buggy whips convinced they are both useful, and that no one has ever done this before. Unmoored in history, we imagine it all started with us. Thomas Jefferson's "Bible" would get him labeled an atheist in some circles; the Deists among the "Founding Fathers" (they were not unitary either) would be "atheists" to many of the more concerned-with-your-creedal-statement religious "leaders" today. The more relevant question than "more atheists than when?" might well be how many Christians are mere baptized pagans? It may be that it is more socially acceptable to announce one's non-belief in Christianity (it is an act of courage to declare yourself a Muslim) than it presumably was in the 1950's (the time of the greatest rise in church attendance in American history), but "Even the pagans do as much, don't they?" (Matthew 5:47b, SV).
The more interesting question is: who is really a believer, and why? Indeed, there might be value in considering who is pagan, and who is Christian, and what they can learn from each other:
Here at home, we are now faced with the prospect of modern Americans seeking to be honest and honorable pagans. If Johnson is right, we can draw a non-polemical conclusion that does not deny faith and truth claims, but places the most important differences in a religious and not secular context. American pagans and American Christians have much in common as we seek to live out our spiritual lives in well-being, and we accomplish nothing good by reducing paganism to immorality and superstition. Our Christian distinction will then lie in our core commitment to Jesus Christ, not in the superiority of our morality or spirituality or hierarchy. And if young pagans are now theologizing their traditions, we may soon have the opportunity to reconsider our own pagan-Christian relationship, not by way of polemic but through wider theological insight. (Emphasis added)
"And they'll know we are Christians by our love." Not by our answers to poll questions.